Jurassic Park

I finally got around to reading the book Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. Palaeontologists Dr. Alan Grant and Dr. Ellie Sattler, chaos mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm and lawyer Donald Gennaro are invited by Hammond to his resort island off Costa Rica. To their astonishment, they discover that Hammond and his InGen Corporation using fossil DNA, supercomputers and gene sequencers have been able to clone dinosaurs at the Jurassic Park. The group is also joined by Hammond’s grandchildren Tim and Lex Murphy. They all set out on a park ride to check out the dinosaurs when all hell breaks loose.

The story in the book is deeper, darker and much different than the movie. I hadn’t expected this. It was just as nail-biting as any Crichton book and I ended up being awake until 5AM (and yet another weekend sleep went down the drain). Malcolm with his chaos theory ramblings is highly entertaining. There are more varieties of dinosaurs introduced in the book than in the first movie. Crichton’s books always have some smartass way of division into sections. This book is divided into iterations, with each one slowly progressing to form a fractal accompanied by Malcolm’s quotes alluding to the same. The underlying message of the book is that genetic engineering without careful understanding of the consequences can be devastating. Though written back in 1990, the book’s takes on genetic engineering are surprisingly accurate seen in today’s context. This is a good pop sci-fi thriller.

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I can’t resist from putting up some excerpts from the book. Note that I don’t agree with all that Malcolm states, but it surely makes interesting thoughts.

(Mathematician Malcolm tries to explains chaos theory to the lawyer Gennaro in layman terms)

“All right,” Malcolm said. “Let’s go back to the beginning.” He paused, staring at the ceiling. “Physics has had great success at describing certain kinds of behaviour: planets in orbit, spacecraft going to the moon, pendulums and springs and rolling balls, that sort of thing. The regular movement of objects. These are described by what are called linear equations, and mathematicians can solve those equations easily. We’ve been doing it for hundreds of years.”

“Okay,” Gennaro said.

“But there is another kind of behaviour, which physics handles badly. For example, anything to do with turbulence. Water coming out of a spout. Air moving over an airplane wing. Weather. Blood flowing through the heart. Turbulent events are described by nonlinear equations. They’re hard to solve – in fact, they’re usually impossible to solve. So physics has never understood this whole class of events. Until about ten years ago. The new theory that describes them is called chaos theory.”

“Chaos theory originally grew out of attempts to make computer models of weather in the 1960s. Weather is a big complicated system, namely the earth’s atmosphere as it interacts with the land and the sun. The behaviour of this big complicated system always defied understanding. So naturally we couldn’t predict weather. But what the early researchers learned from computer models was that, even if you could understand it, you still couldn’t predict it. Weather prediction is absolutely impossible. The reason is that the behaviour of the system is sensitively dependent on initial conditions.”

“You lost me,” Gennaro said.

“Use a cannon to fire a shell of a certain weight, at a certain speed, and a certain angle of inclination – and if I then fire a second shell with almost the same weight, speed, and angle – what will happen?”

“The two shells will land at almost the same spot.”

“Right,” Malcolm said. “That’s linear dynamics.”

“Okay.”

“But if I have a weather system that I start up with a certain temperature and a certain wind speed and a certain humidity – and if I then repeat it with almost the same temperature, wind, and humidity – the second system will not behave almost the same. It’ll wander off and rapidly will become very different from the first. Thunderstorms instead of sunshine. That’s nonlinear dynamics. They are sensitive to initial conditions: tiny differences become amplified.”

“I think I see,” Gennaro said.

“The shorthand is the ‘butterfly effect.’ A butterfly flaps its wings in Peking, and weather in New York is different.”

“So chaos is all just random and unpredictable?” Gennaro said. “Is that it?”

“No,” Malcolm said. “We actually find hidden regularities within the complex variety of a system’s behaviour. That’s why chaos has now become a very broad theory that’s used to study everything from the stock market, to rioting crowds, to brain waves during epilepsy. Any sort of complex system where there is confusion and unpredictability. We can find an underlying order. Okay?”

“Okay,” Gennaro said. “But what is this underlying order?”

“It’s essentially characterized by the movement of the system within phase space,” Malcolm said.

“Jesus,” Gennaro said. “All I want to know is why you think Hammond’s island can’t work.”

“I understand,” Malcolm said. “I’ll get there. Chaos theory says two things. First, that complex systems like weather have an underlying order. Second, the reverse of that – that simple systems can produce complex behaviour. For example, pool balls. You hit a pool ball, and it starts to carom off the sides of the table. In theory, that’s a fairly simple system, almost a Newtonian system. Since you can know the force imparted to the ball, and the mass of the ball, and you can calculate the angles at which it will strike the walls, you can predict the future behaviour of the ball. In theory, you could predict the behaviour of the ball far into the future, as it keeps bouncing from side to side. You could predict where it will end up three hours from now, in theory.”

“Okay.” Gennaro nodded.

“But in fact,” Malcolm said, “it turns out you can’t predict more than a few seconds into the future. Because almost immediately very small effects – imperfections in the surface of the ball, tiny indentations in the wood of the table – start to make a difference. And it doesn’t take long before they overpower your careful calculations. So it turns out that this simple system of a pool ball on a table has unpredictable behaviour.”

“Okay.”

“And Hammond’s project,” Malcolm said, “is another apparently simple system – animals within a zoo environment – that will eventually show unpredictable behaviour.”

“You know this because of . . .”

“Theory,” Malcolm said.

“But hadn’t you better see the island, to see what he’s actually done?”

“No. That is quite unnecessary. The details don’t matter. Theory tells me that the island will quickly proceed to behave in unpredictable fashion.”

“And you’re confident of your theory.”

“Oh, yes,” Malcolm said. “Totally confident.” He sat back in the chair. “There is a problem with that island. It is an accident waiting to happen.”

(Malcolm berating scientists)

“Scientists are actually preoccupied with accomplishment. So they are focused on whether they can do something. They never stop to ask if they should do something. They conveniently define such considerations as pointless. If they don’t do it, someone else will. Discovery, they believe, is inevitable. So they just try to do it first. That’s the game in science. Even pure scientific discovery is an aggressive, penetrative act. It takes big equipment, and it literally changes the world afterwards. Particle accelerators sear the land, and leave radioactive byproducts. Astronauts leave trash on the moon. There is always some proof that scientists were there, making their discoveries. Discovery is always a rape of the natural world. Always.”

(Malcolm on the failure of science)

“[…] the great intellectual justification of science has vanished. Ever since Newton and Descartes, science has explicitly offered us the vision of total control. Science has claimed the power to eventually control everything, through its understanding of natural laws. But in the twentieth century, that claim has been shattered beyond repair. First, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle set limits on what we could know about the subatomic world. Oh well, we say. None of us lives in a subatomic world. It doesn’t make any practical difference as we go through our lives. Then Gödel’s theorem set similar limits to mathematics, the formal language of science. Mathematicians used to think that their language had some special inherent trueness that derived from the laws of logic. Now we know that what we call ‘reason’ is just an arbitrary game. It’s not special, in the way we thought it was.

“And now chaos theory proves that unpredictability is built into our daily lives. It is as mundane as the rainstorm we cannot predict. And so the grand vision of science, hundreds of years old – the dream of total control has died, in our century. And with it much of the justification, the rationale for science to do what it does. And for us to listen to it. Science has always said that it may not know everything now but it will know, eventually. But now we see that isn’t true. It is an idle boast. As foolish, and as misguided, as the child who jumps off a building because he believes he can fly.”

“We are witnessing the end of the scientific era. Science, like other outmoded systems, is destroying itself. As it gains in power, it proves itself incapable of handling the power. Because things are going very fast now. Fifty years ago, everyone was gaga over the atomic bomb. That was power. No one could imagine anything more. Yet, a bare decade after the bomb, we began to have genetic power. And genetic power is far more potent than atomic power. And it will be in everyone’s hands. It will be in kits for backyard gardeners. Experiments for schoolchildren. Cheap labs for terrorists and dictators, And that will force everyone to ask the same question – What should I do with my power? – which is the very question science says it cannot answer.”

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The Cuckoo’s Egg

The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking A Spy Through The Maze Of Computer Espionage is a book by Clifford Stoll. Published in 1989, it is one of the earliest non-fictional accounts of Internet cracking. In this book, Stoll shares his experiences of tracking a cracker stealing US military secrets. The book is written in the form of a journal which follows Stoll’s discovery of the cracker and his year long stakeout. Stoll was an astronomer at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in 1985 when he noticed a discrepancy of 75¢ in the computer accounts usage. On pulling the string he found that a cracker was using the laboratory computers to get into MILNET computers (this is 1985 remember?). He starts tracking him, all the while taking detailed notes in his logbook of the cracker’s moves. The stakeout drags out over a year as Stoll’s cries to the FBI/CIA/NSA and all the other 3-letter agencies fall on deaf ears. Thankfully, the government agencies finally wake up to the problem and the cracker is arrested in his home country. Soon after this experience, the Morris worm hit the Internet and Stoll shares his experience of the worm in the book’s epilogue.

I’d expected the book to be dry with technical stuff, but it was very funny. Stoll is a die-hard hippie and Leftie. The cracker jottings are interspersed with his Leftist takes on the 3-letter agencies, his jokes about research and astronomy and his life at liberal-friendly Berkeley. The book is well detailed in the technical aspects. The moves leading to the final discovery of the cracker are intriguing. An aspect which prominently stands out in the book is how the US government agencies back then had zero idea about the severity of computer security nor knew how to handle it. This cracker didn’t do anything smart, all he did was social engineering and exploiting known program bugs. With just these tricks, he was able to get into hundreds of MILNET computers! This is a damn neat book to read.

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Some excerpts:

Of course, our lab used Berkeley Unix, as do all right-thinking folks. East Coast people were said to be biased towards AT&T Unix, but then, they hadn’t discovered hot tubs either.
[…]
“We’re watching someone who’s never used Berkeley Unix.” He sucked in his breath and whispered, “A heathen.”

(A CIA agent says to Stoll)

“In God we trust, all others we polygraph.”

Back in graduate school, I’d learned how to survive without funding, power, or even office space. Grad students are lowest in the academic hierarchy, and so they have to squeeze resources from between the cracks. When you’re last on the list for telescope time, you make your observations by hanging around the mountaintop, waiting for a slice of time between other observers. When you need an electronic gizmo in the lab, you borrow it in the evening, use it all night, and return it before anyone notices. I didn’t learn much about planetary physics, but weaseling came naturally.

(Stoll comparing military hierarchy to his university hierarchy)

Things are easier in grad school. Just call everyone with a tie “Professor,” and anyone with a beard “Dean.” When in doubt, just say “Doctor.”

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein are known as the Big Three of science fiction. After sampling Clarke, I have started on Heinlein with his The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. I was actually looking for his Starship Troopers in the library and found this instead. The story is set in 2075 when the Moon has become a penal colony where convicts are dumped and they grow food underground to swap it with Earth for their other needs. The story is narrated by an one armed computer technician named Mannie. It is about the first Lunar revolution against Earth.

The descriptions of a Lunar country where humans have adjusted to the gravity and environment is good. The formation of a secret rebel organization is well detailed. Heinlein excels in showing the futility of the Loonies (the Lunar residents) who many times end up with something that they had actually started out opposing. His subtle takes on liberty, democracy and our way of life (and the actual futility of it all) is pretty cool. The book introduces the now popular acronym TANSTAAFL (There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch). But to be frank, I found the book quite dry and stretching in many sections. But, it has stoked enough interest to try his other works.

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